2 Chronicles 28-36
The kings continue to be generally wicked, with a few faithful kings sprinkled in. This is the case with king Ahaz. God even continue to sends prophet after prophet. Truths like this make it impossible to say that God was not patient and careful in dealing with his people.
But, not all the kings are as wicked as Ahaz. King Hezekiah is generally seen as a good king. He knows that there have been funds for the upkeep of the temple that have not been used. He organizes the priests to do something about it. Hezekiah has them restore the temple as the funds allow. Because the temple is in good shape again, it has reinvigorated a desire to follow the festival calendar. After the temple is restored to good condition, the people practice the Passover. It might seem like a strange thing to mention such a regular practice, but it actually wasn’t that regular. When wicked kings reigned, and when good kings didn’t enforce it, the festival calendar, even the Passover, went ignored for years, or decades, at a time. Now that the temple is restored and the festival calendar is being address, Hezekiah clarifies the organizational structure of the priests. All of this, the most basic components of the religious life of Judah, has been ignored all this time.
Despite Hezekiah’s best efforts, the people do not remain faithful. As God had promised and warned about again and again, foreign nations will invade as punishment and discipline. That’s exactly what Syria does. King Sennacherib tells the people that their own king won’t fight him or defend them, so they might as well surrender. But seemingly for Hezekiah’s sake and for his own name, God defends Judah and casts out Syria. Hezekiah had, over time, become quite a prideful king. But with such a fearful incident, he humbles himself before God. He dies as a good king, and his son Manasseh takes his throne.
There are kings who fit the in-between category; one of those is Manasseh. He begins heading in the opposite direction of his father, and he rebuilds the faraway altars, or the high places, throughout the land. Syria/Assyria is still sore from their last defeat, and because God is still having his prophets ignored, he send Syria in again to discipline and punish Judah for the violations of the covenant. But in this case, discipline had its intended effect. Manasseh repents of his own sin and restores the covenantal worship practices in the temple.
In almost a passing sort-of note, we’re told that Manasseh’s son Amon becomes king when Manasseh dies. But he is so wicked that even the people want him dead, so they take matters into their own hands.
Since Amon is killed so soon after taking the throne, his son Josiah becomes king at age 8. He will be a good king, however. Like few before him, he will restore temple worship. There are unused temple-restoration funds, so he orders the priests to make use of them. During those days of restoration, the book of the law is found, which is likely Deuteronomy (or at least sections of it). Think of it—all this time, for God knows how long, no one has seen, known about, or read the books of Moses!
When the book of the law is read to Josiah, he weeps for Israel and the glory of God. They have been fools before God, worshiping the idols of the nations around them. Though he is restoring the temple, the people are not responding in faithfulness. The prophetess Huldah meets with Josiah and foretells of Judah’s destruction. Josiah calls the people to faithfulness, and they make a covenant (which is better interpreted as covenant renewal) with God to be faithful to the law. But we have been down this road ever since Moses brought the tablets down the mountain.
As before, the Passover is celebrated after a time of ignoring it. Why does the Passover keep getting mentioned, out of all the festivals? This is likely because since the Passover looks back to the exodus from Egypt, they need to remember more than ever that they will be exiled and cast back into slavery if they remain unfaithful. They will be cast into exile, awaiting another exodus. That will be a major theme once we get to the prophets.
Josiah is killed in battle. We’re told that Jeremiah lamented his death. Jeremiah is the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote both the book of Jeremiah and like the book of Lamentations.
Josiah’s son Jehoahaz is made king. In keeping with the prophecy to Huldah, Egypt invades Judah and demands tribute. In the ancient world, tribute was essentially a fee you paid to a more powerful nation to not destroy you. Pharaoh Neco removes Jehoahaz and installs Eliakim as king and brings him to live in Egypt. Neco (or Necho, or Nico) is well attested to in writings and artifacts from the ancient world as being the pharaoh of Egypt at the same time as Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.
It’s at this time that Nebuchadnezzar sacks Jerusalem. He installs his own king, Zedekiah, who eventually rebells against him. God sends more unnamed prophets; every morning he wakes up and send another prophet that the people dismiss or kill. Again, God is not careless or impatient with his people. We read, “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place” (2 Chronicles 38:15). Jerusalem is burned to the ground, and many are taken away into captivity in Babylon. But we read about a spark of hope in God keeping his promises by moving the heart of King Cyrus in letting his people return to Jerusalem, but not yet. God is upholding the safety of his people and the glory of his name.
2 Chronicles ends with the reminder that God would not totally destroy faithless Israel; he would always preserve a remnant, along with all the corresponding components of religious life. During the almost 70 years of exile, the empire of Persia took control of Babylon. So the Jews went from Judahites to Babylonians to Persians. Nebuchadnezzar is gone, but he will come back up in the book of Daniel.
Cyrus, king of Persia, was simply the means by which God preserved his remnant. Cyrus decreed that all of those who wanted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple could do so. They could even take the previous metal vessels back with them.
In that day, it was believed that all deities were local. Why couldn’t Cyrus just let the Jews build a temple in Babylon? Because that’s not where he thought the God of the Jews vested his authority. So he permits the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem to appease the God of the Jews. But note, he’s not freeing anyone. No matter how far they are from Persia, the Jews are still considered exiles. Chapter 2 gives us a census of sorts, showing that of all the people in exile, only about 50,000 returned to Jerusalem. No explanation is given here, but in the book of Jeremiah we might get some clues. Jeremiah tells the people to settle, have families, and work hard. Also, some of the people who were children when exile began are now too old and frail to make the journey. Those that do go back in their advanced age will weep when they see that the second temple pales in comparison to the glory of the first.
When the first group arrives back in Jerusalem, the priests begin to immediately rebuild the altar. Once that’s complete, they start the basics of the sacrificial system. Instead of hearing about the Passover, we are now told that they kept the Feast of Booths. This festival was designed to remind them of their time in the wilderness after the exodus. They lived in makeshift, temporary structures to endure the wilderness. Now that they are in exile, even back in Jerusalem, they start by living in makeshift, temporary structures. They are in the wilderness, regardless of their physical location. Prophecies from the major prophets and the book of Daniel go into greater detail about how this is a wilderness and how one-yet-to-come will put an end to it.
After two years, they are ready to start the process of rebuilding the temple. The priests build the foundation and hold a ceremony to celebrate. But this will not continue without persecution and opposition. There are some in Israel, or Samaria, who insist they want to help rebuild the temple in order to worship there. But the Jews know better. They do not worship the same God, and they will not participate in the worship of idols. So these Samaritans bribe the new king Artaxerxes and other officials to stop the building of the temple. If they finish the temple, they will rebuild the city. And if they rebuilt the city, they will most certainly rebel against their oppressors in Persia. Artaxerxes responds by commanding that work on the temple cease. For the time being, the Jews abide by that order.
Festus has explained Paul’s situation to King Agrippa, so Agrippa is ready to hear from Paul. Paul is brought before Agrippa to give an account of who he is, his conversion, and a short summary of the gospel. There is one gospel, and it was preached even from the prophets and Moses. There are frameworks of interpretation, such as dispensationalism, that attempt to make it so that there were different objects of faith in different dispensations. For instance, in the dispensation of the law (the time when Jews were expected to keep the Mosaic law), the object of faith was the law. But Paul unequivocally says here that there is one gospel by which men are saved, and it has been preached even during the time of the law.
Agrippa’s wife, Bernice, was a Jew. By this time in his life, he had acquired a good amount of knowledge about Judaism. Because of that, Agrippa can keep up with Paul’s argument. He even thinks that Paul is trying to convert him to Christianity right then and there! During these hearings, Agrippa and his council can find nothing with which to charge Paul.
So it’s off to Rome he goes, along with his companions, to include Luke (27:1). Paul warns the crew of the ship that there will be danger because of the weather. It doesn’t appear that Paul is even prophesying; he’s simply reading the skies. But he is ignored; after all, even though he’s on his way to meet Caesar, he’s still considered a prisoner. While they are at sea, Paul receives a word from an angel confirming that there will be no loss of life. Even though Paul is assured of God’s sovereign hand over the upcoming events, he still must warn the crew to do what he tells them to. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility must be held together in an unbroken relationship.
Two weeks after setting sail, with two weeks of bad weather, they are finally about to shipwreck. They are preserved by throwing the cargo overboard, lightening the load of the ship. Paul is not the only passenger who is also a prisoner. The soldiers in charge of the prisoners decide to kill all of the prisoners so they are not charged with letting any prisoners get away. However, the centurion in charge of the soldiers is friendly with Paul and refuses to let his men do that to any of the prisoners.
They make it to an island called Malta. One of the first things Paul does is get bit by a snake. The natives of Malta, a civilized society, believe that Paul is guilty of some great sin to have been bit like that. However, he survives with no problems. So instead of thinking Paul is some great sinner, they now think he’s some great god.
A man named Publius was the chief of the island. He welcomes at least Paul and his company into his home. He allows them to stay with him until they can leave. Publius’s father is there as well, and he is deathly ill. In an act of mercy, Paul is able to heal him, winning even more of Publius’s and the peoples’ favor. They stay for three months and are granted all the supplies they will need to get to Rome. Even in the midst of a near-fatal shipwreck, God has supplied all that was necessary to accomplish his divine will.
As Paul continues to sail to Rome, he is greeted by some fellow Christians in a port along the way. He stays with them for a week. The gospel is spreading! Upon landing in Rome, he is able to have an audience with the elders of the Jews. As was the case in just about everywhere else he went to preach, there were those who believed and those who increased in their hardness of heart. He tells them what he has told the Jews everywhere else: he will now spend his time focusing on preaching to the Gentiles. Paul stays there for two years, supporting himself the whole time.
We’re not told how Paul’s life ends. There is a tradition that says he was beheaded in the mid 60’s. It also seems as though he never made it to Spain as he hoped. Rome would be his last stop. So why does Acts not tell us how Paul’s life ends? Well, much like the abrupt ending of the gospel of Mark, we might we wise to ask ourselves why the book ends the way it does and why that might matter.
Perhaps in contrast to the gospel of Mark, Acts ends on a high note. Paul didn’t just die in Rome; he lived in Rome for two years. And not only that, but during those two years, by the Spirit’s power, he proclaimed the kingdom of God and all that Christ taught “without hindrance.” He didn’t pull any punches. Hindrance is not the same as opposition. In the face of opposition, the powerful message of the cross will not be hindered. Paul fought until the end. And during those two years, he also wrote several letters, four of which we know. His “prison epistles” are Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Instead of focusing on the drama of his death, Luke focused on the growth of the kingdom, as should we.
The apostle Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans right before the midpoint of his missionary activity. 1 Thessalonians would have been first, around AD 52, and 2 Timothy would have been last, around AD 67. Romans is typically placed around AD 57. He’s probably in Corinth when he writes Romans.
Unsure if he’ll get to Rome, Paul writes to reconcile the Jewish and Gentile Christians. The emperor Claudius had kicked out the Jews, regardless of their relationship to Christianity, between the years of AD 49-54. Once that edict ended, the Jews who returned to Rome found themselves in a purely Gentile church governed by Gentile sensibilities and preferences. As one might imagine, this was an environment ripe for infighting.
Paul begins by saying how happy he is to be able to write to Christians in Rome; in the most pagan city in the world, God has people. He insists that the same gospel saves both Jews and Greeks (Gentiles). The only thing that saves us, regardless of our heritage, is the righteousness of God given to us through faith. It makes no difference if we are Jews, Greeks, Hoosiers, or Canadians; if we are in Christ, we are one. That is not accomplished by the law of the Jews or the ignorance of the law of the Greeks. It is only won by Christ and his righteousness. To make his point stick, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, showing us that even if the Greeks had no prior knowledge of the Old Testament, it was where the gospel was first preached.
Why is this righteousness necessary? Because God is preparing to pour out his wrath on unrighteousness. Mankind is unrighteous because we “suppress the truth.” No one weighs all the facts, meditates on them, and comes to the conclusion that there is no God. It is not an intellectual decision. It is a posture of the heart. “The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). So no one is truly ignorant of the existence of God. We simply refuse to act on it in order to satisfy our sinful desires. No intellectual, social, or emotional reason is enough for a debased mind to turn from their sin and turn to God.
Because of that, Paul says God has permitted man to live according to his own desires. God gave us up to our lusts: to impurity and dishonor. We turned from natural things to unnatural things. Men and women turned from natural passion for the complementary gender to unnatural passion for the same gender. God permitted these things to happen because we have denied the clear truth of God for the lies of the adversary. Every person who has ever been born knows God’s righteous decrees concerning the law; and not only do we do those things we know we ought not to do, but we give others permission to follow us in our sins. Do not let the false confidence and condescending tone of those who practice these things and permit these things to fool you.